A snootful of dirt in the victory garden

Poor William James Howard Kunstler. The way things are going, he’ll soon be out of business as America’s sole fiery Jeremiah of the peak oil apocalypse. This piece (hat tip to Sean) is a good read: Wake Up, America. We’re Driving Toward Disaster.

Kunstler stresses a need for honesty. Here are other things needing honest consideration:

Roof gardens aren’t going to save America. Agriculture — if it’s not going to be fueled by oil or slave labor — is not a hobby you engage in after work and on weekends. Millions of Americans live on plots of land unsuitable for productive gardening even for snacks, much less staple foods. Obviously, we’ve got some policy to work out, so we can have a food production system in the future that’s more than just corporate factory farming with a smiling yuppie face.

China and other rising nations aren’t going to step back and make it easy for America to change itself. They aren’t going to say, “Look at what the Americans are doing — voluntarily lowering their standard of living! Such innovators!” They’ll burp and say, “Pass the oil can, I need another hit.” They’re going to keep building and sprawling; their citizens are going to get the iPhone 6.0 before anyone in America does. Can our younger generation deal with that?

A war won’t fix things, and even a metaphorical war may not work. Can America really beat swords into plowshares? I don’t know. It was born from war, subjugated the continent via war, expanded its global influence via war. It’s unclear if it can ever get war of out its heart, or out of its mouth. Can American leaders even frame our national integrity in any other way than “a patriotic struggle against the forces of evil” or “a just war spreading our freedoms”? We may find a War on Terror to be worth scorning, and even an honest War for Oil to be objectionable — but a War For a Green Planet? That might one day prove a seductive slogan for the soft-intentioned yet hardcore American soul. This is the invisible worm in our soil that ought to be searched for as we prepare for our new garden. It may stunt any new thing we plant.

12 thoughts on “A snootful of dirt in the victory garden

  1. Gear Of Zanzibar

    I would think that anyone that accepts the peak oil theory is already making the lifestyle changes necessary to survive in a post-petroleum world. From some quick Googling that would seem to entail relocating to a small town with an existing agricultural infrastructure in close proximity to a large patch of forest. Mr. Kunstler’s choice of Saratoga Springs as a residence would seem to be a good one.

    Well, except for the interstate. That’s the route the ravening hordes from Albany and points south will be taking once the 9-day supply of food in the city runs out.

    I suspect the resulting clash of cultures will, indeed, result in some significant lifestyle changes.

  2. sean

    you’ve been on a particular roll with your posts in the last week. your point about framing everything as a war is fascinating and is indeed integral to our history; don’t forget ‘the war on poverty’ and ‘the war on drugs.’ i think the intention is benign; both ‘wars’ were initiated within living memory of the world war II generation, and ‘war’ was intended, no doubt, to stir memories of selfless national cooperation. but the opposite of war is what? and whatever it is, in a profound and long-lasting way, it is what we need to do to take on the problems that transform an entire section of our city into a dangerous zone where all too often – as the book says – ‘there are no children here.’ (we have become numb to a reality that remains staggering: there are portions of america within minutes of our homes in which a child faces a better chance of death, prison or addiction than of living a ‘typical’ life – or, indeed, eclipse is their ‘typical’; the tragedy of it quickly becomes despair which becomes numb acceptance, both for too many of those living it and for those safely beyond).

    those conditions will not be changed by what we call ‘a war’ (in the same way, i suppose, as our oil-consuming behavior): a quick national gulp of air and a furious effort that takes two or four or six years and after which, we like to believe, we can resume our ‘normal.’ those conditions demand generational change, which in turn demands generational commitment. that goes far beyond the concept of war; it is, or ought to be, a quest.

    and as we learn in just about every great epic from every culture, it is always easier to abandon the quest, while many with courage attempt it and fail – until, in the end, someone finds a way and in doing so is transformed themselves.


  3. AZ

    I think your observations about agriculture are spot on. I think we all have a tendency to over-romanticize the small farmer esp. in light of the organic food movement, peak oil etc. But there really is a huge gulf between the part-time hobbyist and someone whose very livelihood depends on a successful farming operation.

    Now I’m a big fan of Kunstler’s as a critic of the American landscape and suburban lifestyle. But I cringe when he makes throw-away statements like “agriculture needs to return to the center of economic life.” There’s just too many ways of interpreting this and, as any student of 20th century history knows, some are not at all benign.

  4. Phil

    Two points.

    Kunstler’s article was reprinted in the Sunday Post Standard Opinion section –and when I read it I was most impressed by his final statement: “Real hope resides within us. We generate it — by proving that we are competent, earnest individuals who can discern between wishing and doing, who don’t figure on getting something for nothing and who can be honest about the way the universe really works.”

    For too long we have deluded ourselves because we could, our middle-class lives were cheap and easy (oh, and like Sean stated above, we also hid from the not-so hidden poverty around us.)

    One nitpicking point from a proud lefty: the author of this article is JAMES HOWARD Kunstler. William Kunstler was the radical lawyer who represented the Chicago Eight and many other civil rights cases.

  5. Robinia

    Agriculture– “got some policy to work out” indeed. AZ, we over-romanticize all farmers, not just small farmers. Nationally, 75% of the average farm family’s income comes from off-farm– be that a “farmwife” with a government job, a healthy inherited stock portfolio, or 12 tennant families in the trailer park down the road. And, most organic farmers are as ful-time as the rest– maybe more so, because they are getting better prices for their product. They call the hobbyists organic gardeners.

    Kunstler is grating, crass, and sometimes insightful. More rude in person than in print. Rebuilding the infrastructure of food distribution to plan for more and more expensive oil and water would be a good idea– roof gardens are more use for reducing air conditioning use than feeding people. Our state is actually working on some of this– here: http://www.agmkt.state.ny.us/foodpolicycouncil.html

  6. JS

    Robinia…where’d you get those statistics?

    I’m wondering because it seems more a necessity that small farmers find off-farm income these days. Or they go the way that millions of smaller farmers have since the 40’s. Selling to larger industrial and CAFO operations, suburban developers, or even suicide (the rates of suicide among smaller farmers are really tough to see).

    I think roof gardens are best for habitat, definitely. To use them for gardens is supercostly and counterintuitive, if there’s available space in a back or side yard. But surprisingly, for residential homes at least (in this region), green roofs aren’t as effective for reducing cooling loads. That’s primarily for the big flat asphalt deserts that are the average commercial building…

  7. Robinia

    OK, JS, you asked, so I’ll ‘fess up: I study the USDA Census of Agriculture, both national, and NYS County-and-region-specific. And, I am on the Management Committee of one of the most-popular USDA Organic Certifiers in NYS, so, I get some pretty detailed info on organic farmers in NY through that avenue. And, am a teammember of the NYS Beginning Farmers’ Project, so, have special familiarity with who is going into farming in NY.

    The smallest farms, and the biggest farms are growing in number in NYS. As elsewhere in the country, the most threatened are what is referred to as “ag of the middle.” Here is some very good explanation of that: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/pubs/nwl/2003/2003-1-leoletter/director.htm

    Ag economics is a very complicated business. Right now, organic farmers are doing quite a lot to boost the viability of small-to-medium scale farms in NY. So, too, are speciality-crop (vegetable, fruit, wine-grape, flower, herbs, nursery stock) farmers. There are tremendous pressures on farmland– that is certain. But, the sale of a farm to developers or a neighboring farm that is doubling or tripling in size usually happens at the point that a farmer retires or expires, and the children do not want to take over the farm. We need better ways to transfer land ownership and keep the land in agriculture– because, while carrying on one’s parents’ occupation is no longer very popular, interest in farming as a career is actually growing in popularity. Many of them, like many other families, however, will get less than 100% of income from one job (farming). Nothing necessarily wrong with that, as long as suitable other income/job is available.

  8. JS

    Awesome, thanks for the information Robinia. I just heard that the first CAFO / industrial farm has found its way to CNY. 15,000 cows? Somewhere to the north of Syracuse….

    I definitely agree that we over-romanticize farmers, especially where most of our food comes from today. It’s not the single-family, with the picturesque red barn, front porch and pie on the window farm anymore.

    I think at the base of the problem is that we converted a life inherent with co-evolved cultural and practical skills into a machine-based industry of efficiency, capital, and profits.

  9. JS

    though i’d add that that the practice of farming (until this past century) was an ancient practice of sustainable living, of people on the land.

    or as Wendell Berry writes, farming “is part of an ancient pattern of values, ideas, aspirations, attitudes, faiths, knowledges, and skills that propose & support the sound establishment of people on the land.”

    moving to a machine-based industrial system has destroyed that. no amount of detailed study or information can reverse this destruction. only a change of heart can.

  10. Robinia

    Agree, JS. That’s why I always think it is poor choice of language to talk about “conventional” as the alternative to organic or sustainable production methods. Longstanding “convention” in agriculture is not the petroleum-based industrial endeavor that churns out our commodities in the US currently.

  11. JS

    Robinia, too true. Orwell and others write about how one of the first signs of genuine trouble is an attempt to redefine and control the meaning of words.

    That’s as true in agriculture as terrorism…

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